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21 January 2015updated 24 Jul 2021 8:02am

On the road in Essex: how Labour is trying to woo young voters and combat Ukip

The shadow universities minister Liam Byrne is travelling around estuary England this week in his party’s bid to make a manifesto for young people.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It starts down in Wapping

There ain’t no stopping

By-pass Barking and straight through Dagenham

Down to Grays Thurrock

And rather near Basildon

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Pitsea, Thundersley, Hadleigh, Leigh-On-Sea,

Chalkwell, Prittlewell

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Southend’s the end

This apparently innocuous route – yelled down the mic by Billy Bragg like an anarchic sat nav in his song, A13, Trunk Road to the Sea – is the “highway of dreams” playing host to Liam Byrne MP’s roadtrip this week.

Labour’s shadow universities minister is on a tour through Essex and estuary England, down the A13 from Wapping to Southend, on a journey to pick up the opinions of young people living in these areas, and to scout out the territory where Ukip is gaining ground. About a third of Nigel Farage’s target seats are along the estuary in the east and southeast of England.

By visiting seven further education (FE) colleges in six constituencies during his three-day, 42-mile trip to the coast, Byrne is hoping to pick up teenagers’ concerns about the future in order to help him shape the special manifesto for young people his party is looking to publish by the end of next month.

I join him for the first leg of the trip, through Newham in east London to Barking and Dagenham, a London borough that was historically part of Essex.

Revolutionaries and reactionaries

Byrne describes himself as an “Essex boy”. He tells me part of this trip is to go back to his roots – though he is not stopping off specifically in his hometown, Harlow – to “explore the question of aspiration”. He remembers his anger at Margaret Thatcher throughout his boyhood in Essex, but wants to emphasise the optimism that also characterised life when he was growing up.

“Ed’s very firmly put young people at the core of our election campaign,” he says of the Labour leader’s lament last week of politicians neglecting young people. “That is a smart move, because what Britain needs now is a sense of optimism and ambition. If you want to really understand the future of optimism and if you want to understand the future of aspiration, you’ve got to talk to young people. And it makes sense to do that in Britain’s toughest political market, which is estuary England.”

Ed Miliband recently attacked the “scandal” of the new electoral registration system, which has meant swathes of 16-24-year-olds falling off the electoral roll. The party is concerned about the potential 2m young people who have no intention of voting in the upcoming general election, and has launched a big drive to attract them into the democratic process.

Byrne is particularly concerned about influential figures – Russell Brand rears his shaggy head – telling the electorate that voting is pointless.

“One of the messages we’re trying to hammer home with our young people’s campaign is that if they don’t want a bunch of reactionaries to take office, reactionaries like Nigel Farage, then they’re going to have to ignore the revolutionaries like Russell Brand, who are telling them not to vote,” he tells me. “Ignore the revolutionaries or you’ll end up with the reactionaries, is my bottom line.”

FE, fees and factories

Our first stop is NewVic sixth form college in Newham, the gradually glistening London borough that was home to the Olympic games in 2012. It is the first of two colleges he is visiting today, in his quest to corral the ideas and concerns of chiefly 16-18-year-olds to shape Labour’s FE and higher education policy.

In a speech to a politics class at this college, Byrne gives an impassioned call for all the pupils present to vote, and to tell their friends to vote. This is one of the overriding messages of his roadtrip:

“If 2m young people don’t vote, you’ll end up with MPs who hate your principles and a Prime Minister who will hurt your prospects. You need a government that backs you up and doesn’t shut you down.”

Miliband has hinted repeatedly in the past few days at a big announcement on student fees. The party’s alternative proposal to the coalition’s notorious trebling of undergraduate fees has so far been rather confused.

Suggestions of a graduate tax, or of slashing the cost to different figures – £6,000 or back down to £3,000 – have been tuned in and out of Labour mutterings for a while. Now it finally looks like the party has made up its mind on its offer to students, and Byrne is doing his best to sound out the idea – without actually giving it away.

He reveals to me that he remains a firm advocate of introducing a graduate tax. As a student in Manchester, when he led the student union in 1992, his was the first student union in the country to come out in favour of such a policy; he led the initiative.

“I’ve long been an advocate of the graduate tax, I think that is the right long-term direction for the system. It’s the only way you can put the system on a sustainable basis, it’s the only way you can build a system where 100 per cent of young people can go and get degree-level qualifications, which, frankly, is the only way we’re going to be able to compete in the world that’s coming. The current system is falling off a cliff.

“Anyone who’s taken a close look at it has concluded that it is going to fall off a cliff; it’s going to write off £70-80bn over the next 20, 30 years. Britain can’t compete like that, Britain needs a strong and stable system that’s good for the future, and that’s why a long-term shift to a graduate tax is the right thing.”

Although this is Byrne’s preferred long-term policy, it seems more likely Labour will go for a slash in university fees as a manifesto promise for May. Byrne neither confirms nor denies this theory, though he does spend the day earnestly collecting the grievances of sixth formers who are put off going to university by the tuition fee hike.

“Young people are saying pretty clearly that they’re worried about the cost of tuition fees and they want to bring that down. I’ve been very clear that if we’re going to make a pledge like that then it’s got to be fully funded – that’s not straightforward, we’re not going to make promises we can’t keep. When Ed said watch this space, that’s the message,” he smiles.

Another area of speculation is that Labour will propose a cut in fees, but only for technical degrees or those in STEM subjects. But the party has already made a pledge on “earn while you learn” programmes, with professional and technical apprenticeships being linked to studying for a degree. There is also talk among some party sources of a system like New Zealand’s interest-free student loans.

What is clear is that Byrne is set on removing some of the debt from people’s shoulders once they leave university. Although many college students who speak to him today say they find the idea of £9,000-a-year fees daunting and off-putting, Labour’s universities spokesperson does encounter challenges to the idea of simply cutting tuition fees.

For example, NewVic’s principal, Eddie Playfair, tells him, “There’s not one jot of evidence that students have been put off by [the fee hike]. They make the calculations; they see the benefits. Political parties are going to have to be quite careful if they want to change the system if they think the current system is putting people off.”

And during a Q&A with students in the second college we visit in the afternoon, Barking and Dagenham College, an audience member accuses Byrne of “scaremongering” about fees. “If you get a job, you can pay it off, and if you don’t, you don’t have to pay – you’ll be fine,” she asserts. “I don’t think you should scaremonger.”

But for Byrne, it’s simple: “We’ve just got to ask ourselves, how much more debt are we going to lay on to our young people? . . How do we ensure that this next generation is better off than the generation that came before it? It’s about driving forward a revolution in social mobility.”

His narrative about aspiration is carried over to the local manufacturing business we visit in Newham, perching on the edge of the Olympic Park. Driving into the small industrial estate that houses Kesslers Ltd, meandering past the Jenga towers of wooden pallets, we see Stratford’s smattering of shiny new developments stretch towards the sky alongside worn-out tower blocks. The Orbit’s tangle of red steel isn’t far off in the distance. This business, which does retail design and manufactures merchandising display products, is 120 years old. It currently employs eight apprentices, and is looking for more young people with the appropriate skills to train up and employ.

The owner takes us on a tour of his business, from the showroom of illuminated make-up stands, a supersized crystalline Stella McCartney perfume bottle and giant plastic Nescafe coffee cups to the factory floor writhing and grinding with punch machines, welders, a guillotine, vacuum forming, an enormous wood router rhythmically rounding off panel edges, and some hefty drums mysteriously labelled “metal laser waste”.

We meet the young apprentices on the factory and warehouse floor, looking enthused in their high-vis vests and fluorescent ear-defenders. It is an optimistic image of the vocational education dream, but the employers complain of a severe skills gap hampering businesses like theirs in this country: “We’d like to employ more apprentices, but we find it difficult getting them to come here. It’s difficult to find good ones, finding somebody to fill that gap.”

This is where Byrne’s idea for apprenticeships through which one can receive a degree come in. He believes this will make the apprenticeship route more attractive to young people concerned about gaining skills to enhance their future employment prospects. One IT apprentice at Kesslers tells us this would be a good mix for all such apprenticeships: “A debt-free degree, and you’re in a working environment and getting work experience. And I enjoy it,” he smiles.

A class act

Leaving Newham for Dagenham, we pass the sprawling factory buildings of the famous Ford plant, and the ochre brick of Edwardian terraces melts into uniform clusters of Fifties housing.

Barking and Dagenham College, where we are joined by the local MP Jon Cruddas, is a 28-acre campus teaming with 12,500 students.

The gloss, neon lights and enormous sans-serif expanses of signage make it more like the Science Museum’s Launchpad than a school. It is the kind of college that is modern and well-equipped enough for phrases I hear as we walk around such as “Frogmarch him to the Pod” and “Welcome to Hashtag The Channel” sound normal. We meet students having the time of their lives in the new design area called iCreate, the green-glowing space-age STEM Centre and the Innovation Zone.

Even in this hub of innovative education, however, there are students who see their future as unstable. “You’re putting your life at risk,” one tells Byrne about his fear of going through university without finding a job once leaving. Another student is trapped in her part-time job by the bedroom tax; she can’t fly the nest because her mother will then be penalised for having an empty room. “I feel under so much pressure,” she says, close to tears.

Byrne believes his party’s plan to crack down on unpaid internships by ensuring interns are at least paid the minimum wage after a month of work is one boost for young people from less financially-stable backgrounds. He also sees linking some form of work experience to a degree as another way of helping such students. These come up as their top priorities, when they are invited to vote on their priorities. Byrne writes down the results.

“I went to what was a terrible comprehensive school in Harlow, and I often say to people ‘if I can do it, so can you’,” he tells me. “Be ambitious about the future, but help shape the future of politics . . . The challenges we confront as a country right now need young people’s creativity and optimism more than ever before. That’s why we’re serious about asking young people to help us design the policy programme of the next Labour government.”

While in Harlow, Byrne worked for a while as a white van man – an infamous trade in modern Labour party history, what with one shadow minister having to resign after apparently sneering at a white van in Strood. Byrne distributed magazines and newspapers in his van, and looks back on what he describes as a “great job” with real fondness. Does Labour need to be more representative of such a section of society, especially in Essex where Ukip appears to be picking up its core working-class voters?

“John Prescott was a really effective campaigner for the Labour party because he spoke to a constituency that is really important for Labour. Labour’s got to be careful in our election campaign, it’s got to make sure that we’ve got a range of voices that can be heard in every corner of Britain, so that does mean we need more working-class voices on the frontline . . .

“We have to make sure that story [of hope] is heard in every corner of Britain, including estuary England, which is why I’m here . . . Labour is having to rebuild coalitions of voters. I just don’t think it’s very easy for a one-term opposition to get right. We are making up a hell of a lot of ground in a very short space of time.”

Punchy policies

The last stop on the first leg of Byrne’s roadtrip is at the Dagenham Police and Community Boxing Club. Cruddas calls this popular local hub his “favourite institution in this constituency”.

Squeaking over the recently revamped rubber red floors, checking out the new boxing rings and stalactites of mighty punchbags, we hear from the proud man in charge about the 200 children that come in to learn every week, and the 21 registered coaches who take the time to train everyone from nine to 40 years of age.

“Doctors have started referring chunky little kids here for weight management,” he says proudly, as a group of considerably fitter attendants begin to do a warm-up of fierce skipping. “And we get referrals from the local community, youth offenders, that sort of thing.”

Cruddas points out that, “every race comes in here – everyone boxes together, which is really important because we’ve had some challenging times with extremism and things around here”. Barking was where the BNP hoped to take the council, and its then leader Nick Griffin ran for the seat, in the 2010 election.

Again, the word “aspiration” pops up here. The Labour MPs hear how young people being part of such a stalwart community centre can set them up with the support base, ambition and confidence they need in later life. This idea, and the opportunity for a comedy pose wearing enormous pairs of boxing gloves, leaves them with permanent goofy grins across their faces. Then it’s time for Byrne to hit the road again.

Liam Byrne (left) and Jon Cruddas (right). Photo: Anoosh Chakelian